Saturday, January 31, 2015


By Toby Zinman



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Still peculiar after all these years.

John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves premiered in 1971, was revived in 1986 and again last year in New York with a starry cast. Each time it baffles  audiences and critics: is it a drama or a comedy? Is it kitchen-sink realism or  goofy absurdism? And this current Isis production, under Neill Hartley’s direction, baffles again.  Bolstered by an excellent cast, the script moves us more than it seems to deserve.

The show begins in a nightclub with a painfully awful medley of songs sung badly by Artie (John Zak who conveys pathos and end-of-ropeness perfectly). He is a desperate zookeeper who longs for show business glamour and success—and no wonder. Artie is married to a crazy woman, the aptly named Bananas (Renee Richman-Weisband in a delicate portrait of bewilderment) who is also desperate-- to feel something, anything. But even twenty-four hours out in the snow in her nightgown doesn’t produce so much as the sniffles much less some relief from her numb suffering.

Into this mess has come Bunny (Kirsten Quinn a wildly animated performance), Artie’s lover and bizarre downstairs neighbor who wants to run away to Hollywood with him, expecting Artie’s boyhood friend, Billy (Rob Hargraves), now a legendary movie director, will help him. Billy’s deaf mistress, Corinna (Jennifer MacMillan who is hilariously loud) turns up to complicate matters, as does Artie’s desperate son Ronnie (Eric Wunsch in a particularly disturbing portrayal conveyed entirely by gestures) who has gone AWOL from basic training and is carrying a live grenade.

There are three nuns, a photo album of  longed-for food, two gratuitous chase scenes, and  a crisis at the zoo, but you don’t need to hear about all that. The day of the plot is the day the Pope arrives in 1965 in New York City to address the United Nations about the war in Vietnam. Although the Pope’s celebrity and everybody’s need for a blessing and a miracle are thematic in the play, the actual papal visit is, for Guare’s purposes, a red herring. 

The mystery of the play’s title is filled with disappointment, too; Artie wistfully describes a tree covered with blue leaves, and then describes how the magical turned out to be merely the prosaic as the bluebirds flew away, leaving ordinary green leaves. The concluding set directions in the script require that the stage be filled with blue leaves as our final image, but here it never happens, shifting the production’s tone to one of unredeemed sadness.



Isis Productions at Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, 9th & Walnut Sts. Through March 25. Tickets $10-25. Information: isis/

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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